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The Beauty of Philosophy

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It was always difficult to tell, Theon thought, when a child should advance from tutoring to the more challenging group work. Just because a young man could don a toga, well, for those who were citizens of Rome, did not mean he was ready to think for himself. And, he could also admit, there were those who thought for themselves before they were able to lace their own sandals. His daughter was one such, always asking "why," as children do, but listening to the answers, as most children did not.

Hypatia, he had no doubt, was ready to move up to the group lessons. She would listen. She would answer. She would think. He couldn't keep her in the house, satisfied with using a wax tablet or reading the scrolls in his personal library. And yet he worried about her. Would she ultimately prove herself to be like so many promising young women before her, more concerned with a husband and the comforts of religion, than the deeper understandings of mathematics and philosophy. Theon corrected himself. It was best to be honest even when only thinking alone. Most people were more concerned with marriage and family than mathematics and philosophy. For many, man and woman alike, simple arithmetic was sufficient for their needs, and the only natural philosophy they understood was the instinct of copulation.

Men were more likely to rise above the mundanities, the little pinpricks of daily life, the lures of rhetoric and basic logic, to study the quadrivium with not just arithmetic, but astronomy, geometry, and music -- all the uses of numbers. His daughter, though, already looked to the heavens and used her logic to ask questions, to begin to truly understand… everything.

Youth would be young. Most students were not drunkards. Most students were not extravagant with their flights of fancy. A few were both. But all young students could be distracted by petty arguments.

Neokles would later admit he had tempted the young from the path of pure learning, but, he told Theon, it was merely to see who among the group was worthy of higher study.

The question he put before them was Beauty.

"It is regularity," said Phaedo. "What is more beautiful than a statue of Hathor or Aphrodite? Their features are perfected and we admire them for the purity of their gazes."

"He's doing well in Rhetoric, then?" Theon asked.

Neokles nodded. "But it's like getting an ox to turn a corner to get him to understand music or geometry."

Many of the young men waxed eloquent on the theme of female beauty, comparing some of the women they knew, favorably, to the statues Phaedo had mentioned.

"It is not regularity which appeals, you know." Hypatia spoke up from her seat near the door. "It is irregularity."

Phaedo laughed and a few of the others joined him. "You find a hunchback appealing then? Or shall I get my cousin Strabo to court you?"

"We stop looking at the statues because we know them. They are too regular, too perfect."

"As befits the gods," Djau said.

"Perhaps," Hypatia answered, "But when I hear you speak of a woman's beauty, when you think I'm not listening," Her eyes held a great deal of mirth as she said it. "It's Dirce whom you mention."

"How does my daughter know the name of a hetaira?"

Neokles shook his head. "She is surrounded by rich young men, Theon."

They went quiet, some no doubt contemplating the beauty of Dirce.

Hypatia continued. "Her features are not regular. Her eyes are an unusual golden color and slanted like a cat's, not round like beautiful Hathor's cow eyes. Her hair is red, which is a most irregular color for hair, since very few people have it. And her mouth is too wide for her face, with an extreme cupid's bow. None of those things is regular, but you're not the only men to find her the most beautiful woman in the city."

Phaedo said, "Dirce's not beautiful, then." He was roundly booed by the other boys in the class.

Djau said, "Then what do you think, Hypatia? What makes something -- or someone -- beautiful? It can't just be irregularity, or women would be flocking to Phaedo's cousin Strabo."

"Every day we view the light through the perfect circle of the oculus, but it's richer and more beautiful at certain times of day. And those are rarely at noon when it casts a perfect circle." They could see her composing her thoughts and waited for her to continue. "Have you seen Gurion's horse? It's the most perfectly proportioned horse I've ever seen. Even Alexander's Bucephelas couldn't match it. I know no one who thinks it's beautiful because it's the most evil tempered animal ever to bite an arm. I for one can't wait until its hide becomes a camp stool."

Everyone laughed. Hypatia held up her hand and continued. "Purity or other attributes, then, become part of beauty. In the case of Gurion's horse, it loses beauty for not having a good personality. Dirce may have individual features which don't meet the classical standards, but her intelligence, carriage, and good temper help to arrange those features into something pleasing -- pleasing enough that we call it beauty."

A voice called from the back, "What then do you find beautiful, Lady?"

"The heavens. Music."

"But they are both regular," Phaedo said, stamping his foot in exasperation. "I win."

Hypatia cocked her head and examined him like a specimen for a moment. "I thought this was a dialogue, not a contest. But if we're going to contest it, if one of us must win, then I think I have. If music were perfectly regular, there would only be one tune, or perhaps five like Plato's solids or Aristotle's elements. Instead there is a wide variety, just as there is a variety of instruments with which to play them. And the heavens…" Her face lit up with joy, "There is the fixed star Polaris which always shows true north. There are the constellations along the ecliptic which change from season to season and give us our zodiac. There are comets which bring us wonders. And there are the wanderers, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury which sometimes go forward, sometimes stand still, and sometimes even retrace their paths." She shook her head in wonder. "Astronomy is the highest study not because it is following the stars in a perfectly regular path through the seasons. It's the highest because it has irregularities to intrigue us, to pull us in, to keep us fascinated until we find the most perfect explanation."

Neokles said, "Then I call the question, gentlemen. Is the lady correct in her explanation? Or Phaedo?"

"Well? Did she win?"

"Yes, Theon, they even made her a wreath of oak leaves to wear in her hair. She looked quite rakish."

"Should I send her to Athens?"

Neokles nodded. "They'll think Athena herself has come to visit them."

Theon didn’t admit it, but he had been haunting the docks for over a week. He wandered down after his morning discussion with his disciples and found food stalls for his afternoon repast. He knew his daughter was returning after just over two years in Athens, but he also knew it could be weeks more before Hypatia arrived.

Neokles found him in the early afternoon, sipping wine and eating cheese at a taverna. He greeted his friend with, “A ship from Athens has been sighted from the lighthouse. It should be in dock soon.”

“It probably won’t have my daughter, but still, I can, along with Epictetus, enjoy the simple pleasures of herbed cheese and wine.”

“I never took you for an Epicurean, Theon.”

Theon smiled, “As we get older, we recognize that simplicity is a pleasure in itself. What else were the Epicureans talking about?”

“And how does your daughter find your late conversion to the pleasures of the table?”

“How should I know, Neokles? She’s not back yet. But the pleasure doesn’t have to be extreme. Here, taste this cheese. The oil and herbs smooth out the flavor, and then, just a sip of wine, blends it all together into something fit for the Emperor. Or at least a minor Senator.”

They laughed together quietly as Neokles tried the cheese.

“And what of Hypatia? What will happen when she gets back? Have you picked a good husband for her?”

“Neokles, my old friend, didn’t you attend the reading of her new astronomy paper at the Serapeum? I have already had parents ask if Hypatia is taking disciples when she returns.”

“She’s sent us back scrolls she’s written on each of the disciplines of the quadrivium. Was this any different?”

Theon thought for a moment. “No. But as each paper addressed a different aspect of irregularity in beauty, it was seen as a culmination. To borrow the ideas of the trades, this paper shows it to be a masterpiece. She’s no longer a mere journeyman, content to listen to her father’s ideas or even the ideas of Democritus with whom she studies. How many of our young men truly learn to think for themselves or learn to apply arithmetic to anything higher than a game of dice?”

“I did hear the first scroll. Her work with the prime numbers, and tying them to our philosophy of beauty in symmetry was thought provoking. My scholars have brought me problems she posits, including many to do with elliptical curves.”

“And you think she will be happy cut off from scholarship to breed a family?”

Neokles nodded. “Your point is well taken, Theon, but you must remember she’s a woman.”

“I believe she’s a philosopher first, a teacher second, and a woman third.”

“But disciples?”

“I have several parents wanting private tutoring for their daughters, true, but most who approached me assumed she would be founding her own circle within the library.”

“Then if she has enough followers, she must be allowed her circle.” Neokles sipped his wine contemplatively. “Theon, that ship I mentioned has come in.”

Theon turned to look in the direction where his friend was pointing. “So it has… I … is that my daughter coming off the ship?”

“'It’s a wise father who knows his own child.'”

Theon shook his head. “Then I can tell you, it is Hypatia.” He stood and raced to greet her.

“Father? I hadn’t expected you to greet me at the docks.”

Neokles leaned in to say, “He’s been like a bear with a sore paw since you’ve been gone. We’re glad to have you back.”

“It’s good to see you again, Neokles.”

Theon harrumphed a little. “Be fair. I am far more noble than a bear. A lion at least!”

All three of them laughed and Neokles took his leave of them.

“Are you hungry? We can have something here or…”

“Father, let’s walk through the city. Oh. Olympius.” She waved an older man over. “Father, my hosts assigned Olympius to me, and he proved such a good amanuensis that I bought him to bring back.”

Theon looked the slave over and nodded. “He seems strong. Was it you who copied the scrolls you had sent to the library here?”

“Yes, my lord.”

Hypatia smiled softly at the slave. “He was an immense help.”

“Then we shall find him good quarters in our home.”

It took him a few moments to organize a guide and bearers to take Hypatia’s luggage to the house. Olympus was sent along with them, and Theon and Hypatia walked slowly toward the Serapeum.

“It’s good to be home, Father. Athens -- well, it’s the center of philosophy, for which I’ll always honor it -- but it is a bit of a backwater.”

“And have you been initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries? Were you allowed to attend symposia? How did Diomedes treat you?”

Hypatia smiled at him fondly. “More questions than a student. That’s what makes you such a good philosopher. Yes to the Eleusinian mysteries. Diomedes and his family were wonderful hosts and he’ll probably be sending his oldest son to us for a year or so soon. As for symposia… it wasn’t easy. Thalia finally held one for me, after which, I was occasionally invited to other gatherings, usually with her or Chara in attendance as well.”

“Women at … were you taken for a hetaira?”

“No, Father. I was extremely respectable. But the hetaira asked me for lessons which I gave them. And when Thalia heard I was being excluded she arranged an evening where I was included.”

Theon shook his head. “Lessons to hetaira. I suppose I should just be happy you had time to think and write. Your works have been very well received here.”

Hypatia smiled widely. “I’m so happy, Father. There was a great deal of debate about them in Athens -- especially when I first began asking the questions. The final works were approved, but I think some had reservations about ideas from a woman.” She stopped and breathed deeply. “How I missed this view! Alexandria is the perfect city.”

“I’d like to see you debate that and win,” Theon said dryly. “I think the drought at the height of summer would refute your premise.”

She rested her head against his shoulder. “That may be, but no sight pleases a wanderer like home.”